Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review: Role of Honor, by John Gardner

New York: Putnam, 1984, pp. 304.

In John Gardner's Role of Honor, the British Secret Service stages a spy scandal which has Bond rather publicly leaving the Service. Afterward Bond, under the pretext of being a free agent, trains in computer programming, the better to enable him to infiltrate the operations of a Pentagon computer expert who apparently faked his own death, Jay Autem Holy, who is thought to be involved with the Soviets in something nefarious . . .

As the premise of the novel suggests, Role is Gardner's biggest break with the familiar pattern of the Bond adventures up to this time. The months-long mission, the highly public spy scandal in which Bond is involved, his having to learn how to code, are all inconceivable in a Fleming novel—or a Bond film. Indeed, the early chapters do not feel much like a James Bond adventure at all, and it is quite some time before the series is on more familiar ground.

Interestingly, even as the novels break with the usual pattern of the adventures, they do repeat the pattern of Gardner's. SPECTRE, first reintroduced in For Special Services, is back yet again, this time under the management of Tamil Rahani. Just as in Licence Renewed there is a bit of nuclear age do-gooderism-gone-wrong in Holy's plans to neutralize the superpower arsenals—the concept presented as dangerously destabilizing on its surface, and then even that idea demonstrated as really just Rahani's cover for his real objective, neutralizing just the U.S.'s arsenal, and so handing nuclear supremacy to the Soviet Union on a platter (not unlike SPECTRE's plan in Services). There is, too, the way in which Bond comes upon the plot, sent to join a group of people, among which he has to decide whom he can and cannot trust.

Also in line with the pattern Gardner increasingly followed after Licence Renewed, the story as a whole is light on action, which is confined to a few brief bursts of violence dispersed throughout the book. Following the opening heist scenes (in which Bond does not appear), there is a brief and quickly foiled carjacking a fifth of the way in, until Bond's kidnapping another fifth of the way in. Thus does it continue, with the most elaborate set piece taking place in the middle of the book. Still, after a somewhat confusing opening the book is brisk, smooth and lucid, and has its share of appropriately Bondian touches, like the villain's use of an airship in his scheme, and a final run at 007 that demonstrates that Ernst Stavro Blofeld is not the only SPECTRE chief to live to fight another day—with Bond taking the battle up again in the follow-up, Nobody Lives Forever (1986).

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